Wednesday, April 24, 2019

108 Stitches by Ron Darling

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Why I Read It: I'm a sucker for any baseball bio...even one by a Met.

Summary: A deep dive on the author's teammates.

My Thoughts: All kidding aside about the Mets, I always respected Ron Darling for his accomplishments on the field. I had never looked deeply, though, at his pre-pro ball life. Thankfully, this book cleared up a lot of that for me.

I never connected him to Massachusetts. Broadcasters were always quick to point out that he was born in Hawaii when he played, as that made him seem exotic. But he grew up in the Worcester area, in a little town I've visited on a few occasions. His youthful memories of sports heroes are the same as mine. No matter what story he tells, he has a parallel story that relates back to the Red Sox. And so, it was odd that to get his World Series ring, he had to beat the team of his childhood heroes.

But that, he explains, is baseball. Coddled and nurtured on the way up, all the way through Yale, he had no idea what to expect when he hit the minors, and was rudely awakened to the fact that baseball is at its heart a business, where players are commodities that drive wins and losses, and ultimately gate receipts and other sources of revenue for billionaires. Hometown allegiances mean nothing in the end.

He took a fun approach to this book. He wanted it to be about his teammates, so he sought out a complete database of all of them. He wanted it to show interconnection, like the never-ending seam of 108 stitches that cover a baseball. He links players to stories from different eras, showing how some come around again through time. He tries to show us how transient and, quite frankly, crazy, the life of a ball player can be. There are so many moving parts, from players who get signed, traded and released, to coaches who pop from organization to organization and played with players from the previous generation, and were coached by the one before that.

There are a lot of laughs in this book, as well as some contrition. Darling is a good man, and regrets the way he treated certain teammates in certain moments. He chalks it up to the idiocy of youth, but doesn't use it an excuse.

My one regret about the book is that there is an "in my day" moment at the end of the book, something I just wish he'd avoided altogether. Yes, the game is changing; every American sports fan knows that. But that, too, is baseball. I'll betcha Ty Cobb hated watching Babe Ruth smash all his home runs, But evolution is evolution. It happens everywhere, all the time. Baseball will continue to change, sometimes in an accelerated fashion, sometimes slowly. Let it ride, Ron.

So, think '80s Mets, '90s A's, New York City, broadcasting and growing up a Red Sox fan, and you have the basis for a great book.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot

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Why I Read It: Impulse buy as I was stepping on a plane.

Summary: Qatar's Football Dreams program targets the next big soccer superstars from Africa.

My Thoughts: A couple of things became unequivocally clear to me while reading this book.

First, there is the link between poverty and soccer. In the United States, the history of sports has always said that there were two avenues out of poverty: boxing and basketball. But the U.S. has never been a soccer playing nation, although the sport is now growing. Oddly enough, there is one major difference between soccer and basketball. The latter needs a ball that bounces; the former just needs something, anything, that can be kicked. Anyone, anywhere can play.

And so, the link between soccer and poverty is borne out. It's the cheapest sport at which one can gain skill as a youngster. And when you're poor in a developing nation, like the many African countries, or Brazil, some kids have nothing more to do than to play soccer. That inherent disadvantage - poverty - becomes a competitive advantage. They get to their 10,000 hours in the sport quicker than most other kids around the world.

Second, there is a deep divide in whether or not sports academies sponsored by developed nations in Third World countries should be allowed to exist. While a nation like Qatar, or a business like a premier team like Barcelona FC or Man United may see setting up a soccer school in Senegal as a natural extension of their player development work, others see it as exploitation, as in the next stage in the exploitation of the resources of the Dark Continent that has taken place for centuries. But, if we set up sanctions and limits for the numbers of athletes a team can sign, are we not robbing athletes of opportunity (not to mention probably running afoul of all sorts of labor laws)?  The question becomes more complicated when we realize that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup and has a free pass into the tournament. But in a country where the average kid is rich and generally unmotivated (as explained in the book), compiling a team of world class athletes from a small population seems almost impossible. Qatar has turned to training and naturalizing players to become citizens eligible to play. My counter argument here would be to check out how many Canadians play on the Italian national hockey team. Yes, they prove their heritage, but are they truly Italians (just one example)?

So the book provides conundrums, and doesn't settle any, as they are still being debated globally. The author follows the lives of several young men. We want them all to succeed. Some do, some don't. It wouldn't be a good book if they all made it. It dabbles in the growth of pitch performance analytics, and shows how the game is changing on the fly (my favorite note being that shorter, more physically compact players can turn and cut more quickly and effectively; hence why the New England Patriots keep signing 5'10" wide receivers - they can get open more easily).

There is much more to come in this topic, yet I fall on the side of opportunity for all. The rest of the world may debate what's "fair" in terms of sportsmanship and competitive balance, but, in truth, we should be examining the question from the perspective of humanity.

Lion's Pride by Chris Charlton

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Why I Read It: I've become a fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Summary: The history of the organization from its roots through 2015.

My Thoughts: Antonio Inoki is one of those names that seems to have stuck around in professional wrestling "forever," even if it's just back to the 1960s. And although he has moved beyond the sport now, his influence is still felt.

Charlton's approach is both chronological and anecdotal. Chapters are produced as straight history sandwiched by lengthy sidebars on topics that beg more exploration, such as the foreign influence on the organization through time. It's well researched and written.

New Japan, like so many other sports organizations, has had its share of ups and downs. There were times when it seemed it couldn't financially survive, and others, when stadiums were filled to the brim every month, when it seemed like it would never go away. In the end, it's a miracle that it's still here, and under the same name, as so many other similar organizations have made that one wrong move that spelled their own doom.

Inoki was the catalyst, an internationally known athlete who had a vision. Unfortunately, his vision oftentimes clouded its own horizon. He kept, for instance, trying to insert other martial arts into NJPW cards in ways that never worked. He should have known from the beginning that it would be the case. After all, his mixed martial arts match against Muhammad Ali in 1976 will probably go down as one of the biggest pay-per-view flops of all time.

Th beauty of this book, though, is its timing. NJPW is a staple of American television now, on AXS every Friday night. It provides context. American pro wrestling is ridiculously formulaic, with heels and faces (bad guys and good) battling out the eternal contest of good vs, evil. Japanese wrestling generally shies away from this concept and instead pits every man against every other man. The top guys are just the top guys, and they can all face each other on any given night, even within their own factions (which, in itself, is a complicated system). In this way, no top contender is ever barred from truly contending. NJPW gives the fans what they want.

Toward that end, the organization also believes in clean wins now, true pinfalls or submissions, without count-outs or disqualifications, the tools that Inoki hid behind for years to maintain his place atop the company but to ignite the passions of the fans.

To just tune in and see what's happening can be confusing. The first question for the average American wrestling fan will always be, "Wait...who am I supposed to cheer for?" But given a few weeks of viewing, it all makes sense.

Charlton's book is a primer for the company's past, and helps to let the reader understand longstanding Japanese traditions as well as the country's long memories of matches and title changes from the past. Each wrestling match is a story unto itself, but in Japan it hearkens back to previous matches, down to specific moves; fans remember if a wrestler used a submission to take out his opponent the last time they met, or two or three times ago.

I feel a little but more empowered about my new passion for the company after reading this book.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Lightning Sky by R.C. George

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Why I Read It: I collect knowledge about the warbirds of World War II like I collected baseball cards as a kid.

Summary: A flyboy enters the war, becomes a POW and begins his journey home.

My Thoughts: The world had never seen anything like the P-38 Lightning when it took to the skies in World War II. The double-boom design threw everyone for a loop; even the German soldiers who eventually captured the protagonist even asked him where his buddy was.

Unfortunately, the plane wasn't unstoppable. After months of training in numerous different planes, Dave MacArthur shuffles off to war in the European Theater. He fills in for a missing pilot on a strafing mission over a Greek airfield and ends up in the hands of the Germans. He witnesses things no human should ever see, that no humans should ever do to other humans. In the waning days of the war he begins to lose weight, lose his will to fight, but never really loses hope that he will make it home.

The author deftly juxtaposes the stories of Dave and his father Vaughn, a chaplain in the Army, as they both enter combat in Europe. Vaughn is overseas when he hears that Dave has been captured, and makes it his goal to find him.

The author recreates the POW experience in great detail, holding back none of the gruesome, horrifying details. In the end, it seems to be a miracle that Dave survives, but he does. In fact, he fights in two more wars in the decades to come.

It's yet another story from the greatest story of all time, World War II, a conflict that directly impacted millions of lives.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Mobtown Massacre by Josh S. Cutler

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Why I Read It:
I know the author; that was enough reason for me.

Summary: The story of "Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812."

My Thoughts: It's understated, but it's there.

Josh Cutler had many reasons to write this book, including a family history in journalism. He also happens to represent the town of Hanson, Massachusetts, in our state legislature, a community named for the hero, or anti-hero, depending on your point of view, in this story.

And therein lies the third reason Josh wrote this book. Hanson had an opinion. To many, that opinion was too strong, and to many more, it was wrong. He was pro-British - or, at least anti-war and definitely anti-French - on the cusp of the War of 1812. He had his own forum to share those views, a newspaper that he published in Baltimore, a volatile place that erupted in violence when the mob had enough of his editorials.

The understated story of this book is its parallels with the modern day.

Hanson fought back when the mob tore down the place from which he published his paper, lining up a second establishment and preparing to defend it when the mob inevitably struck. It did, and blood was drawn. The details are numerous, woven together strongly by the author into a riveting tale as seen through the eyes of many of the combatants.

We're left with the final consequences of what happens when the freedom of the press is disrespected.

As a politician, the author faces it every day, the swings too far each way. He knows that the true path to consensus is through respectful debate, not hatred, not violence. He sends a message through this book's publication.